Gender Differences in Elaborative Parent–Child Emotion and Play Narratives
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- Zaman, W. & Fivush, R. Sex Roles (2013) 68: 591. doi:10.1007/s11199-013-0270-7
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Reminiscing about the past is an everyday activity that has implications for children’s developing memory and socioemotional skills. However, little research has systematically examined how mothers and fathers may differentially elaborate and engage their daughters and sons in reminiscing. In this study, we asked 42 broadly middle-class, highly educated U.S., mostly Caucasian mothers and fathers from the same families, living in the southeastern U.S., to reminisce about a happy, sad, peer conflict, parental conflict, playground and special outing experience with their 4-year-old child. Narratives were coded for parental styles of cognitive elaboration and joint engagement. Results indicated that mothers are both more elaborative and engaged with children than fathers are, especially about negative emotional and positive play experiences. Thus, mothers appear to be helping children recount and understand their personal past more than fathers, and specifically, in working through difficult emotions that may facilitate emotion regulation skills.
KeywordsParent–child interactionAutobiographical memoryEmotion talkPlay
We spend much of our social time sharing our past experiences with others, and this sharing often takes the form of narrative reminiscing (see Fivush 1998, for a review). Beginning in early childhood, mothers across the world from diverse U.S. samples (e.g., Reese et al. 1993), New Zealand samples (e.g., Farrant and Reese 2000), Asian samples (e.g., Wang 2006, 2007), and Latino samples (Melzi et al. 2011) scaffold reminiscing about the past with pre-school children, long before these children are even able to fully participate themselves (see Nelson and Fivush 2004). Reminiscing with others about the past allows us to interpret our experiences by weaving the events together into a coherent whole, connecting past, present, and future (Bruner 1990; Fivush and Nelson 2006; McAdams 1992), and it is through adult-structured reminiscing that children begin to learn the forms and functions of narrating the past (Fivush et al. 2006). Notably, much research in U.S. samples of two-parent families has shown that this process is gendered, with females narrating more elaborate and emotional autobiographical narratives than males (see Fivush and Buckner 2003, for a review), and this is true even in the way parents reminisce about the past with children (e.g., Reese et al. 1993).
A great deal of research on diverse populations from across the U.S., China, New Zealand and Latin America has now established that mothers differ in how they scaffold reminiscing about the past with children along a dimension of elaboration (Farrant and Reese 2000; Fivush and Fromhoff 1988; Reese and Fivush 1993; Melzi et al. 2011; Wang 2006, 2007), and these differences have been implicated in multiple aspects of children’s development, including the development of narrative skills, memory for past experiences, emotional well-being, and children’s attachment security (e.g., Boland et al. 2003; Fivush 1989; Fivush and Sales 2006; Laible 2004). Importantly, there is some suggestion in samples of U.S. parents that mothers may be more elaborative than fathers, and that parents are more elaborative when reminiscing with daughters compared to sons, particularly about negative emotional experiences (Fivush and Zaman in press; Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 1993, 1996). Gender differences in parental reminiscing point to how gender roles are socialized in narrative contexts, and how these roles may eventually become pervasive in gender identity development. However, only two studies, both using U.S. samples, have directly compared mothers and fathers on elaborative style, and no studies have systematically examined how elaborative style may vary across a variety of different kinds of experiences. In particular, based on the larger literature on differences between maternal- and paternal-child interactions discussed in more detail below, there is reason to hypothesize that mothers and fathers would differ specifically while reminiscing about emotional and play experiences. Thus, the major goal of this study was to directly compare mothers’ and fathers’ elaborative reminiscing with daughters and sons about different types of emotional and play experiences. In order to more fully motivate the study, we begin by first summarizing the research on individual differences in reminiscing style, followed by an exploration of why reminiscing might be expected to vary by gender. Finally, we review the scant research on gender differences in parental reminiscing, with a specific focus on elaborative style. We note at the outset that the majority of studies comparing mothers and fathers have been done primarily with samples from the U.S., which limits the generalizability of any conclusions we draw from this review.
Individual Differences in Parental Reminiscing
As pre-school children become increasingly able to engage in conversations about their past, they rely on adults to help them structure their experiences into coherent, elaborated narratives (Fivush and Nelson 2004), and parents have been shown to differ in their ability to do this, although the vast majority of this literature has focused on Caucasian middle class mothers in U.S. and European cultures (see Fivush et al. 2006, for a review). Fivush and colleagues have distinguished between mothers who have a high elaborative compared to a low elaborative style during joint mother-child reminiscing (Fivush and Fromhoff 1988; Hudson 1990; Nelson and Fivush 2004). High elaborative mothers tend to talk frequently about the past, and in more detailed ways that extend and elaborate upon the events of the narrative. These mothers ask mainly open-ended questions to the child (e.g., “Why did that make you happy?”) in a way that moves the story forward and allows the child’s version of the story to be told. On the other hand, low elaborative mothers spend less time talking about the past with their children, and even when they do, they ask few and redundant questions that do not contribute to the development of the story. They ask primarily ‘yes-no’ questions that promote their own version of the story (e.g., “You were happy, weren’t you?”). Although a more limited database, these different elaborative styles have also been demonstrated in middle class U.S. fathers (Reese and Fivush 1993), New Zealand mothers (Farrant and Reese 2000), Asian mothers (Wang 2006, 2007), and Latina mothers (Melzi et al. 2011).
Maternal styles of reminiscing within middle class Caucasian U.S. samples appear to be consistent over time as children get older (Reese et al. 1993), and across siblings (Haden 1998), but importantly, do not extend to different conversational contexts, such as free play or caregiving activities, nor does it correlate with mothers’ level of talkativeness (Haden and Fivush 1996; Hoff-Ginsburg 1991). These data suggest that reminiscing about the past is a unique context in which parents provide the scaffolding necessary to help build their children’s narrative skills, and some parents may do this in more effective ways than others. Notably, research with diverse SES, mostly Caucasian U.S. and European samples have shown that more elaborative mothers have children who, over the course of childhood and development, display better autobiographical narrative skills (Fivush 1989; Fivush and Fromhoff 1988; Peterson and McCabe 2004; Peterson et al. 1999; Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 2010), higher levels of emotional understanding and well-being (Bird and Reese 2006; Fivush and Sales 2006; Sales and Fivush 2005), and more secure attachment relationships (Fivush and Vasudeva 2002; Fivush and Reese 2002; Gini et al. 2007; Laible 2004; Oppenheim et al. 2007).
Clearly, research suggests that individual differences in how mothers reminisce with children have implications for children’s development. However, the literature is limited in its examination of fathers in the reminiscing context, even though more general stylistic differences in how mothers and fathers interact with children would predict gender differences in the reminiscing context as well.
Why Expect Gender Differences in Reminiscing?
Different Patterns of Parental Conversations
Generally speaking, mothers and fathers differ a great deal in language interaction with their young children (Leaper et al. 1998). Canadian mothers tended to be more talkative and use a greater variety of language forms than fathers, and were better able to adjust their speech to the child’s level of language development than fathers (Harrison and Magill-Evans 1996). Infants from the U.S. and Europe also vocalize more during play interactions with mothers than with fathers, and mothers vocalize more than fathers during these same interactions, suggesting a conversational pattern between mothers and infants while playing (Weinraub and Frankel 1977). Parents also differ in actual conversational content. A meta-analysis on U.S. and European samples of parents indicated that mothers used more supportive (praises and approvals) and negative (criticisms and disapprovals) speech than fathers, while fathers used more directive (imperative statements and direct suggestions) and informing speech (descriptions, explanations or opinions) than mothers (Leaper et al. 1998).
In addition to differences in general conversation styles, evidence discussed below suggests that mothers also engage their children in more verbal kinds of play than fathers do. Both in the lab and at home, American fathers engage their children in more vigorous, physically stimulating, unusual, and unpredictable play, such as rough-and-tumble play (Lamb 2002), while mothers are more likely to initiate fantasy play (Lamb and Oppenheim 1989), and conventional games, such as pat-a-cake, or games involving toys (Lamb and Lamb 1976). Weinraub and Frankel (1977) found that the interaction styles for U.S. and European mothers and fathers during play clustered into distinct patterns of behaviors, with mothers displaying more nurturing, supportive behaviors, imbued with more verbal interactions, whereas fathers engaged in more roughhousing behaviors, distant observations of children’s independent play (although still an open source of reference when the child needs help), and instruction-giving. An overall pattern thus emerges of mothers having a more verbal relationship with children and fathers having a more tactile, physical relationship.
These broad stylistic differences between mothers and fathers during conversations and play may be related to parental differences in reminiscing contexts as well. Therefore, parent–child talk about the past may be expected to vary as a function of the gender of the parent, reflecting mothers’ and fathers’ more general interaction styles with children.
Gender Differences in Reminiscing Styles
We begin by noting that research directly comparing mothers and fathers on elaborative reminiscing is very limited (although one study has examined parental differences among mostly Caucasian middle class U.S. families in the use of emotion language when reminiscing with preschool children; Fivush et al. 2000). In the only study of preschool children to compare mothers and fathers on elaborative reminiscing style, examining a sample of mostly Caucasian middle class families from the U.S., children were followed from 40- to 70-months, reminiscing with mother at four separate time points, and with father at the earliest and latest time points, about a shared, unique experience. Reese and Fivush (1993) and Reese et al. (1996) found that mothers and fathers did not differ in their overall use of elaborations over time, but fathers used more repetitive statements during reminiscing than mothers. In addition, mothers increased in their use of elaborative statements over time, but fathers did not, suggesting that mothers were less repetitive and increasingly more elaborative than fathers across the preschool period. Similarly, in a sample of pre-adolescents in which mostly Caucasian middle class U.S. families discussed past events together, Fivush et al. (2009) demonstrated that mothers were more elaborative than fathers in their use of both factual and emotional statements about positive and negative family experiences.
The finding that mothers may be more elaborative than fathers is in accord with more general gender differences in how adults narrate their autobiographical memories (see Brody and Hall 1993, and Fischer 2000, for reviews). Adult women across multiple Caucasian European samples tell longer, more vivid, and more detailed autobiographical narratives than do men (Fivush and Buckner 2003; Thorne and McLean 2002; Niedzwienska 2003). Women’s narratives also tend to be imbued with more internal state language such as affect and emotions than the narratives of men (Bauer et al. 2003), and middle class, mostly Caucasian U.S. mothers talk more about emotions than fathers while reminiscing about emotional experiences of the child (Fivush et al. 2000). Consistent with gender theory, U.S. women report valuing and practicing the act of reminiscing about the past more than men, making reminiscing a stereotypically feminine activity (Ross and Holmberg 1990). Further, because women from multiple cultures generally talk more about their feelings during reminiscing than men do, and include more internal states into their narratives, emotional reminiscing in particular is considered especially stereotypically female (see Brody and Hall 1993, and Fischer 2000, for overviews). Thus, mothers and fathers might be especially likely to differ on elaborative style when reminiscing about emotional experiences (see Fivush and Zaman in press, for full theoretical arguments).
Intriguingly, elaborative reminiscing also differs depending on the gender of the child (see Fivush and Zaman in press, for a detailed review). In the longitudinal study by Fivush and colleagues discussed earlier, 40 month old daughters were more likely than sons to hear elaborative narratives about the past from both parents, and mothers in particular were more elaborative with daughters than with sons across all four assessments (Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 1993, 1996). Fathers, on the other hand, were particularly more repetitive with sons than with daughters (Reese et al. 1996). Furthermore, in studies that examine only mothers in multiple European cultures, differences by gender of child emerge in a variety of reminiscing contexts, including reminiscing about unshared, unique experiences (Reese and Newcombe 2007) , reminiscing about sad, angry, and scared emotional experiences (Fivush et al. 2003), and reminiscing about positive and negative experiences (Sales et al. 2003). Although not all studies have confirmed gender of child differences (Farrant and Reese; 2000; Haden et al. 2009; Kulkofsky et al. 2009; Laible and Song 2006; Laible 2004, 2011; Melzi et al. 2011; Peterson et al. 2006; Wang 2006, 2007), when differences do emerge, regardless of the context, they are always in the direction of mothers being more elaborative with daughters than with sons. Further, gender of child differences in how mothers reminisce specifically about sad, angry and scared experiences suggest that negative emotional experiences elicit certain gender schemas, consistent with the idea that emotional reminiscing is a feminine activity (Brody and Hall 1993, and Fischer 2000). Thus, gender differences may be especially likely to emerge during reminiscing about emotional experiences.
Clearly then, gender is an important factor in reminiscing that needs to be considered in more depth. The existing research on parental gender differences in elaborative reminiscing is limited in several ways. First, as shown above, much of the research on individual differences in elaborative style examines only mothers and children, and rarely are fathers included in these samples. Thus, we compared both mothers and fathers from the same families reminiscing with either their daughter or their son. Second, different types of events have never been considered when comparing mothers’ and fathers’ elaborative reminiscing styles. Given the research reviewed above, we expected that mothers and fathers might differ specifically when reminiscing about emotional and play experiences. Therefore, we examined several kinds of emotional and play conversations here.
A third objective was to more closely examine the construct of elaborative reminiscing. These dimensions were constructed based on previous theory and empirical studies. Elaborative style has typically been captured as a global construct, weighing the parent’s use of elaborative statements and open-ended questions against their repetitive statements and ‘yes-no’ questions (e.g., Fivush and Fromhoff 1988). However, Fivush et al. (2006) have argued that the concept of an elaborative style is a complex one that needs to be deconstructed. Theoretically, researchers have talked about elaborative style in both cognitive (that is, parents’ questions and statements that allow the story-line to progress) and emotional terms (attunement, engagement and negotiations between parent and child that contribute to an elaborative narrative they both agree upon).
Cognitive elaboration may be particularly important in helping the child learn the forms of narrating the past, and how to construct coherent and detailed narratives of what occurred (Fivush et al. 2006). This style of elaborative reminiscing has been measured by Fivush and colleagues primarily using utterance-by-utterance coding, and typically captures the extent to which the parent uses open-ended vs. yes/no questions, and engages in elaboration of the child’s contributions to the narrative vs. asking repetitive questions that lead the conversation in a particular direction (Fivush and Fromhoff 1988). Laible (e.g., Laible 2004) has also developed a 5-point global scale for measuring this type of elaborative style, capturing the overall quality of the parent’s questions to the child.
Joint engagement and negotiations between parent and child is similar to Oppenheim’s concept of intersubjectivity in parent–child dyads (Etzion-Carasso and Oppenheim 2000; Gini et al. 2007), and may be more critical to helping the child understand the function, or value, of sharing the past. Intersubjectivity is typically coded on a global scale that assesses how emotionally attuned the parent and child are to each other during the telling of the story, how invested each party is in the narrative process, how disagreements are negotiated and resolved, and whether or not a common, shared story is achieved by the end of the narrative process. By sharing different feelings, interpretations and viewpoints about the experience, children may be learning how to evaluate their experiences, as well as understanding that different people may have different perspectives on the same event (Fivush and Nelson 2006).
Thus, in this study, we explicitly examined these two aspects of an elaborative style, by constructing new coding schemes to independently assess the level of cognitive elaboration and joint engagement during parent–child reminiscing. Importantly, if parents differ in how they generally elaborate with children (Reese et al. 1996), then mothers’ and fathers’ elaborative styles might also be expected to vary on both the cognitive elaboration and joint engagement dimensions.
The Current Study
Our primary objective in this study was to compare maternal and paternal reminiscing styles on the dimensions of cognitive elaboration and joint engagement when discussing past emotional and play experiences with pre-school daughters and sons. We chose to examine 4-year-old children given that the previous literature has focused on the preschool years as the critical period for the emergence of autobiographical memory, and the ability to engage in co-constructed autobiographical narratives (Nelson and Fivush 2004). We expanded the existing literature in three major ways. First, we asked both mothers and fathers to reminisce with children about four different specific past emotional experiences of the child. Previous research found that mothers elaborate more with daughters than sons when reminiscing about sad, angry and scared experiences (e.g., Fivush et al. 2003). In addition, in these studies in which mothers select the events to discuss, angry events typically fall into two categories: a time when the child was angry or upset with a friend, or a time when the child was angry or upset with the parent. Qualitative impressions of these two different types of narratives suggest that it may be useful to examine them separately. Therefore, we asked mothers and fathers to reminisce with their children about four specific emotional experiences: a time the child was happy and sad, a peer conflict and a parental conflict. Second, since mothers have been argued to have a more verbal, and fathers a more tactile, relationship with children (Weinraub and Frankel 1977), we expanded the types of events that parents are asked to talk about to explore differences in parental styles of reminiscing about experiences that are more characteristic of the father-child relationship. Reminiscing about play experiences has mostly been studied in the context of pretend play, and these studies have only sampled U.S. mothers (e.g., Boland et al. 2003). Thus, we also asked mothers and fathers to reminisce about shared play experiences. Third, we developed new coding schemes to separately examine the cognitive elaboration and joint engagement aspects of an elaborative reminiscing style.
Preliminary analyses controlled for number of words used by parent in testing all of the below hypotheses, in order to eliminate parental talkativeness as playing a role in gender differences in elaboration and joint engagement. Word count was not implicated in any main effect or interaction, and was therefore eliminated from all subsequent analyses.
Based on previous research comparing mothers and fathers by Reese et al. (1996), our first hypothesis was that mothers would be overall more elaborative and engaged than fathers, as would be evidenced by a main effect in cognitive elaboration and joint engagement across event types. We further hypothesized that mothers would be especially more elaborative and engaged than fathers when reminiscing about emotional events, as would be evidenced by a significant interaction between parent gender and event type.
Our second hypothesis was that parents would be more elaborative and engaged with daughters than with sons, as evidenced by a main effect of gender of child in our analyses. We further hypothesized that both mothers and fathers would be more elaborative and engaged with daughters than with sons when reminiscing about emotional compared to play events, as would be evidenced by a significant interaction between gender of child and event type.
Forty-seven children and their parents were recruited into the study from the Emory University Child Study Center that maintains a database of families, contacted through mailings, fliers and advertisements, willing to participate in research. Parents gave fully informed consent and children gave verbal assent for participation in the study, as approved by the Emory University Institutional Review Board. Parents received a $50 Visa gift certificate for their participation and children received a coloring book on one visit and a stamp activity set on the other. Four families were dropped from the analyses because they did not complete the second half of the study, and one family was dropped because the father was blind. Of the 42 remaining families, 21 of the children were females.
At the time of the first home visit, children from the 42 remaining families ranged in age from 4 years 0 months, to 5 years 2 months, with a mean age of 4 years 6 months. Families consisted of between zero and four siblings, ranging in age from 16 months to 20 years. All families were opposite gender, two-parent families. Of the 42 families, 40 were biological, one was blended and one was adopted. Forty families spoke English as their first language, one family spoke Hindi as their first language, and one spoke Spanish as their first language. However, in all cases, both parents and children were fluent in English, and all data were collected in English.
The sample was primarily Caucasian, with 35 mothers self-identifying as White or Caucasian, three as Black or African American, three as Mixed, and one as Asian. Thirty-one fathers identified themselves as White or Caucasian, five as Black or African American, four as Latino, Mexican or Hispanic, one as Mixed, and one as Asian.
The parents in our sample were highly educated. Three mothers reported completing some college, 19 had an undergraduate degree, 19 had a post-graduate degree, and one did not report level of education. Two fathers reported completing high school, six had some college education, 15 had an undergraduate degree, 18 had a post-graduate degree, and one did not report this information.
Race and education level of parents, and number of siblings by gender of target child
Mothers of daughters
Mothers of sons
Fathers of daughters
Fathers of sons
18 (42 %)
18 (42 %)
14 (33 %)
18 (42 %)
1 (2 %)
2 (5 %)
3 (7 %)
2 (5 %)
3 (7 %)
1 (2 %)
1 (2 %)
1 (2 %)
4 (9 %)
Final education level
High school degree
2 (5 %)
2 (5 %)
1 (2 %)
5 (11 %)
2 (5 %)
12 (27 %)
8 (18 %)
5 (11 %)
11 (25 %)
8 (18 %)
13 (30 %)
10 (23 %)
9 (20 %)
Number of siblings
Female target child
Male target child
3 or more
This study was part of a larger program of research investigating the relations between parental reminiscing, play and children’s attachment and well-being. Only the procedures relevant to the current study will be discussed.
Participants were visited on two separate occasions, between 1 and 2 weeks apart, in their homes by one of two trained female researchers. During one of those visits, the mother and child took part in the study, and during the other, the father and child participated, the order of which was counterbalanced. Parents were told that we were interested in parent–child patterns of interactions and that they would be asked to converse with their child about several events they had experienced together. At each visit, parent and child were asked to reminisce about four past emotional experiences of the child (happy, sad, a conflict with a peer, and a conflict with the parent in the dyad), and two past play interactions they experienced together (the last time they visited the playground together, and a special outing they engaged in together). The order in which emotional and play narratives were elicited was counterbalanced.
To ensure that the dyad reminisced about all emotional events, parents were presented with four index cards in random order, on each of which was written either ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘conflict with you’, or ‘conflict with peer.’ The researcher prompted for the narratives by saying: “On each of these cards is a description of the events I’d like the two of you to talk about. I’d like you to talk about these events as you normally would if they just came up in conversation. Remember, you are talking together about experiences that [name of child] has had that involve the words on the cards. There are no time limits, and no right or wrong way to do this. You may begin at any time.”
Play narratives were selected to assess differences in reminiscing styles between mothers and fathers when reminiscing about events that are more typical of the father-child relationship. Parent and child were asked to reminisce about two past play interactions in which they engaged together: “I would like you to talk together about the last time you and [name of child] visited the playground,” and “I would like you to talk together about a special outing you shared/engaged in together recently.” The order in which the two play narratives were elicited was counterbalanced.
Coding for cognitive elaboration and joint engagement
Parent asks mainly yes-no questions; restricts child’s contributions.
Parent and child report different versions of the story or disagree on everything
Parent may ask some open-ended questions, but most questions are yes-no.
Shared attention between parent and child, but no negotiation when there’s disagreement.
Parent uses a balance of open-ended and yes-no questions, and few repetitive questions.
Shared attention between parent and child, and absolute agreement on everything without any negotiation.
Most questions are open-ended with a few yes-no questions.
Parent and child negotiate disagreements in the process of creating shared meaning, but fail to get there.
Parent asks mainly open-ended questions, confirms and elaborates on child’s contributions.
Disagreements are resolved through negotiations; there is a sense of shared meaning and understanding.
The elaboration coding scheme is a 5-point scheme based on Fivush and Fromhoff’s (1988) assessment of high and low elaborative mothers described in the introduction, and adapted from the global coding of elaboration in Laible (2004). Parents scoring on the low end of the scale asked mainly ‘yes-no’ questions (e.g., “You liked that, didn’t you?” or “Did we go to Chucky Cheese yesterday?”), provided the child little opportunity to contribute his or her own version of the story, rejected the child’s independent contributions to the narrative, and was repetitive in asking questions until the child provided a satisfactory answer. Parents scoring on the high end of the scale asked mainly open-ended questions (e.g., “How did that make you feel” or “What did we do yesterday that made you happy?”), confirmed and then elaborated on the child’s independent contributions to the narrative, and rather than asking repetitive questions when the child did not remember, these parents moved the conversation forward by contributing new details to prompt the child.
We defined joint engagement as the extent to which parent and child were on the same page while telling the story, and the quality of negotiation between parent and child when there was disagreement. On the low end of the 5-point scale, parent and child reported completely different versions of the story, showed little acknowledgement for each other’s perspective or memory of the event, and there appeared to be a general lack of cohesiveness in the story. There were also low-scoring stories in which one party contributed the entire story, while the other simply agreed or disagreed. On the other hand, on the high end of the scale, both parent and child were invested in the telling of the story, there was consistency and harmony in the telling of the story, and disagreements were resolved through negotiation and reflection, rather than negation of the other’s perspective.
Two trained coders, blind to the gender of the parent and child, independently coded 25 % of all narratives for reliability, and reached an intra-class correlation (Bartko 1966) of 0.76 (p = 0.001) for cognitive elaboration and an intra-class correlation of 0.91 (p = 0.001) for joint engagement. The remaining narratives were divided between the two coders to be coded.
Mean (standard deviation) number of words used by parents by gender of child
Means (standard deviations) for cognitive elaboration and joint engagement by gender of child and parent
Elaboration - mother
elaboration - father
Engagement - mother
Engagement - father
Mean joint engagement scores by gender of parent and child are shown in the last two panels of Table 4. In order to examine gender of parent and gender of child differences in joint engagement, a mixed model ANOVA with type of narrative (happy, sad, conflict with peer, conflict with parent, playground and special outing) and parent’s gender as repeated measures and gender of child as a between subjects factor was conducted. Results yielded a main effect of narrative type, F (5, 36) = 5.07, p = .001, an interaction between narrative type and parent’s gender, F (5, 36) = 2.43, p = .04, and an interaction between narrative type and gender of child, F (5, 36) = 2.57, p = .03.
To more closely examine our first hypothesis that mothers and fathers differ in joint engagement, we conducted follow up analyses on the narrative type by gender of parent interaction. Follow-up paired samples t-tests on mothers compared to fathers indicated that mother-child dyads (M = 2.88) were more engaged than father-child dyads (M = 2.38) particularly when discussing sad experiences, t (1, 41) = 2.31, p = .03. Mother-child dyads (M = 3.02) were also more engaged than father-child dyads (M = 2.60) when discussing a recent special outing, t (1, 41) = 2.06, p = .05. There were no differences between mother-child and father-child dyads when reminiscing about happy, conflict, or playground experiences.
To more closely examine our second hypothesis that mothers and fathers reminisce differently with daughters and sons, we conducted follow-up analyses on the narrative type by gender of child interaction. Follow-up t-testson girls compared to boys revealed that, when discussing a parental conflict, parents were overall more engaged with sons (M = 3.05) than with daughters (M = 2.48), t (1, 40) = 2.08, p = .04. In contrast, when reminiscing about a special outing, there was a trend for parents to be more engaged with daughters (M = 3.02) than with sons (M = 2.60), t (1, 40) = 1.83, p = .08. There were no differences in how engaged parents were with sons compared to daughters for happy, sad, peer conflict and playground narratives.
Therefore, to summarize, there was partial support for our first hypothesis that mothers and fathers differ in reminiscing styles across event types. Mothers were overall more elaborative than fathers when reminiscing with children, particularly about happy, peer conflict, playground, and special outing experiences. Mother-child dyads were also more engaged than father-child dyads during sad and special outing narratives. There was also mixed support for our second hypothesis that parents differ when reminiscing with daughters vs. sons. Parents were overall more engaged with sons than daughters on parental conflict narratives, but more so with daughters than sons on special outing narratives.
Research on parent–child reminiscing has failed to systematically examine differences between mothers’ and fathers’ styles of elaborative reminiscing, although the literature would suggest such differences (Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 1993, 1996). The results of our study confirm our first hypothesis of parental gender differences in reminiscing style, and extend them to both the cognitive and, to a lesser extent, the emotional aspect (joint engagement), of an elaborative reminiscing style. Importantly, we extend these gender patterns to different kinds of past emotional and play experiences. Interestingly, with regards to our second hypothesis of differences due to gender of child, unlike past research (Fivush et al. 2003; Sales et al. 2003), we found few differences in parental reminiscing style due to gender of child. Each set of results will be discussed in turn.
Hypothesis 1: Gender of Parent Differences
In line with the findings of Reese et al. (1996), we found that mothers were more elaborative than fathers when reminiscing with pre-school children about a happy experience. Additionally, we demonstrated that mothers elaborated more than fathers across a variety of experiences, especially a peer conflict and play experiences. Mothers and children were also more engaged with each other when reminiscing than fathers and children were, especially about a sad and special outing experience, and more elaborative mothers also tended to be more engaged with children, though this did not hold true for fathers. Thus, mothers are helping their children work through and talk about their experiences more than fathers, regardless of the specific type of experience.
This is consistent with gender theory that women value the act of reminiscing about the past more than men (Ross and Holmberg 1990), and as a result, they engage in more detailed, elaborated reminiscing, and become more skilled at it over time than men (Fivush and Buckner 2003; Fivush and Zaman in press). Furthermore, emotional reminiscing is especially stereotypically female (see Brody and Hall 1993, and Fischer 2000, for overviews), with American females generally imbuing their autobiographical narratives with more internal state language, such as affect and emotions, than males (Bauer et al. 2003). Therefore, when parents are asked to talk about emotional experiences with children, such a context may elicit gender schemas to a greater extent than talk about everyday experiences (Fivush and Zaman in press).
That mothers are more elaborative than fathers during talk about happy and peer conflict experiences, and more engaged with children during talk about sad experiences, is consistent with other studies demonstrating that mothers include more emotion terms, and discuss and explain the causes of emotions more than fathers both while reminiscing about every day, positive experiences (Kuebli and Fivush 1992), and about a variety of negative emotional experiences (Fivush et al. 2000). Mothers are thus helping their children work through and understand emotional experiences more than fathers, and this is reflected in more elaborated narratives about such experiences, in which both parent and child are equally engaged, and attuned to each other, during the telling of the story.
Moreover, when reminiscing is centered on negative events, such as conflict and sad experiences, more elaborated, engaged narratives may reflect the mother’s effort to help her child deal with difficult emotions in more effective ways. Fivush and colleagues and Laible have argued that more elaborative reminiscing about these kinds of negative emotional experiences help children to think about, work through, and deal with difficult emotions in more beneficial ways (Fivush and Vasudeva 2002; Fivush and Reese 2002; Laible 2004). Mothers who ask open-ended questions such as “Why were you upset?” and “What can we do about that next time?”, and then expand upon the child’s answers, allow the child the opportunity to reflect on his/her feelings, explain them, and then come up with solutions for dealing with those emotions in the future. Importantly, more elaborative reminiscing about past negative, but not positive, emotional experiences is related to better emotional well-being (Sales et al. 2003) and more secure attachment relationships in American samples (Fivush and Vasudeva 2002; Fivush and Reese 2002; Laible 2004).
Similarly, mothers who are more engaged with children in the telling of the narrative, allowing for more negotiations during disagreements, and validating the child’s independent contributions, may implicitly communicate to children that their own version, perspective and feelings about the experience matter, and are just as important as the parent’s. Not surprisingly then, Oppenheim and colleagues have shown relations between securely attached Israeli children during infancy and dyadic intersubjectivity during the pre-school years, which they define as cognitive and emotional attunement and engagement between mother and child during reminiscing interactions (Etzion-Carasso and Oppenheim 2000; Gini et al. 2007).
Intriguingly, although play interactions are more characteristic of the father-child relationship in U.S. and European samples (Weinraub and Frankel 1977), we found that mothers were more elaborative than fathers when reminiscing about a trip to the playground and a special outing, and mothers and children were also more engaged with each other than fathers and children were during conversations about a special outing. This suggests that even though fathers may be more engaged in physical play with children, when it comes to conversations about such play, mothers are more engaged in helping their children recall and talk about the details of these experiences. Further, this is consistent with the data showing that even during the act of play, mothers verbalize more with children than fathers do (Weinraub and Frankel 1977).
Gender differences in parental reminiscing highlight the distinct but equally important roles that mothers and fathers may play in children’s development. Our finding that more elaborative mothers are also more engaged with children, but there is no correlation between fathers’ elaboration and engagement, suggests that reminiscing is clearly an important aspect of the mother-child relationship, but may be less central to the father-child relationship. Instead, other findings from this dataset point to the critical role that play activities assume in the father-child, but not the mother-child, relationship (Zaman and Fivush 2013, under review). Thus, whereas mothers may be essential in facilitating emotion regulation in children through the understanding of difficult emotional experiences, fathers are important in supporting children’s exploration of their environment.
Gender differences in maternal and paternal reminiscing styles may have important implications for children’s developing narrative skills. Theory and research in mostly Caucasian U.S. and European cultures suggests that children learn the skills and values for reminiscing by participating in parent-guided reminiscing about the past (Fivush 1998), so any differences in how children experience their mothers versus fathers reminiscing might be internalized. More specifically, when girls and boys experience their mothers and fathers reminiscing differently, they may implicitly begin to associate certain aspects of remembering the past with being female or being male, and subsequently integrate these aspects into their own narratives in ways that might mirror the narrative style of the same-gender parent. Therefore, over time, the autobiographical narratives of girls should become more elaborated than those of boys. Indeed, research shows that by the time they are 4 years old and able to fully engage in reminiscing tasks, American and European girls are telling longer, more detailed, and more elaborated narratives during reminiscing than boys (Farrant and Reese 2000; Fivush et al. 1995; Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 1993, 1996; Sales et al. 2003). Thus, girls and boys are beginning to narrate gendered autobiographical narratives from a very young age, and these gender patterns endure into middle-childhood in U.S. samples (Pasupathi and Wainryb 2010). Further, as Pasupathi and Wainryb (2010) have shown, these gender differences are accentuated in effect size during adolescence, when children begin to more frequently narrate personal experiences, and weave them into a life story (Fivush et al. 2011, 2012; Habermas and Bluck 2000; Pasupathi and Wainryb 2010; Zaman and Fivush 2011).
Hypothesis 2: Gender of Child Differences
Gender differences in children’s own narratives would suggest that mothers and fathers not just reminisce differently from each other, but also with daughters compared to sons. Yet, contrary to past research (e.g., Reese and Fivush 1993; Reese et al. 1993, 1996), we found few differences in how parents reminisced with daughters compared to sons. In fact, there was no difference in how parents elaborated with daughters versus sons on any of the narrative events, and only two significant effects for joint engagement. Specifically, parents were more engaged with sons than daughters when discussing a parental conflict, but more engaged with daughters than sons when discussing a special outing. The greater consistency across studies in differences between maternal and paternal reminiscing styles, as compared to differences in how parents reminisce with daughters versus sons, suggests that children may be more exposed to gendered ways of reminiscing through modeling their parents. This, in turn, implies that children may be learning how to narrate in both female- and male-stereotyped ways, but adopt their same parent model for their own reminiscing. Some suggestion that this is the case comes from research asking mostly Caucasian, U.S. adolescents to narrate both their own personal experiences and to tell stories about their parents’ experiences as children (Zaman and Fivush 2011). Adolescent females and males tell gendered personal narratives, with females providing more elaborated and more emotional narratives than males, but when telling stories about their parents, both girls and boys tell stories about their mothers that are more elaborated and emotional than stories about their fathers. These patterns indicate that adolescents both know and can use female and male models of narrating, but choose to tell their own personal narratives in gendered ways. Clearly, more research is needed to elucidate this process.
Limitations and Conclusions
This was the first study to systematically examine differences in how mothers and fathers reminisce with pre-school children about different kinds of emotional and play experiences. Yet, several weaknesses must be highlighted. First, our participants were primarily middle-class, Caucasian-Americans, which limits the generalizability of our results. Research suggests that parents from different populations, such as Chinese-Americans and Latino-Americans, may display different gender patterns while reminiscing with young children (e.g., Melzi et al. 2011; Wang and Fivush 2005). The mothers and fathers in our sample were also highly educated, and educated parents have been shown to be less gender-stereotyped in raising their children (Brannon 2005), thus limiting the generalizability of our findings. Future studies are very much needed to examine maternal and paternal differences in elaborative style across different kinds of populations.
Second, our study examined only one age group of children, and therefore does not allow an examination of how mothers and fathers may differ in elaborative style over time, or with children of different ages. Thus, studies that follow parents and children over time are needed. In addition, we did not elicit independent narratives from these children. However, how girls differ from boys as they begin to tell their own narratives, in relation to maternal and paternal differences during early reminiscing, is an essential area of research needed to understand how gender differences in reminiscing may influence children’s developing narrative skills and the gender roles they begin to adopt. Similar research is currently underway in a New Zealand sample (see Reese et al. 2010 for details). Further, we do not examine here how children contribute to reminiscing conversations with parents, and may thus elicit gender differences from parents, and this is essential to understanding the bi-directional nature of gender differences.
Third, as with any kind of global coding, our coding schemes captured the general cognitive elaboration and joint engagement style of each parent, with much less focus on the specific questions and statements used by the parent. Global coding is helpful in establishing overall differences between mothers and fathers. However, more in depth, utterance-by-utterance coding may be needed to understand how mothers and fathers specifically differ in their elaborative styles of questioning and responding to children. Further, our global coding rated only the parent’s contributions to the narrative, though children’s contributions may influence parents’ elaborative styles to some degree. More in depth, utterance by utterance coding is necessary to examine how both parents and children reciprocally influence each other during reminiscing. We also focused here only on parental elaborative style, though the emotional content of reminiscing narratives has also been shown to differ between mothers and fathers (Fivush et al. 2000). Capturing parents’ use of emotions in particular, and internal state language more generally, requires a more in-depth coding of the narratives, and is an area we are currently pursuing.
It should also be noted that the majority of experiences parents and children selected to talk about were shared experiences, with the exception of the peer conflict conversations, and most of the experiences were single, unique events. However, gender differences between parents and in how parents reminisce with children may certainly be different when reminiscing about unshared or recurring experiences, and future research should examine both shared and unshared, and single and recurring experiences.
Despite these shortcomings, we demonstrate clear differences in how mothers and fathers reminisce about the past with children across different kinds of experiences, both in the cognitive and emotional aspects of elaboration. These results are intriguing, and a necessary first step to better understanding how parents socialize gender roles to girls and boys through narratives about the past, and how girls and boys may then incorporate these roles into their own narratives and their own lives.
This research was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supporting the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. The paper was written while the first author was a pre-doctoral fellow of the National Institute of Health, fellowship number 5 F31 HD 64545- 2. We are extremely grateful to Natalie Ann Merrill for endless hours of data collection, organization and coding. Additionally, we thank John Shallcross for help with coding.